Chapter 6: Monitoring and Telemetry

Collecting telemetry data for a running system is an essential function of the management platform. It enables operators to monitor system behavior, evaluate performance, make informed provisioning decisions, respond to failures, identify attacks, and diagnose problems. This chapter focuses on three types of telemetry data—metrics, logs, and traces—along with exemplar open source software stacks available to help collect, store, and act upon each of them.

Metrics are quantitative data about a system. These include common performance metrics such as link bandwidth, CPU utilization, and memory usage, but also binary results corresponding to “up” and “down”, as well as other state variables that can be encoded numerically. These values are produced and collected periodically (e.g., every few seconds), either by reading a counter, or by executing a runtime test that returns a value. These metrics can be associated with physical resources such as servers and switches, virtual resources such as VMs and containers, or high-level abstractions such as the Connectivity Service described in Section 5.3. Given these many possible sources of data, the job of the metrics monitoring stack is to collect, archive, visualize, and optionally analyze this data.

Logs are the qualitative data that is generated whenever a noteworthy event occurs. This information can be used to identify problematic operating conditions (i.e., it may trigger an alert), but more commonly, it is used to troubleshoot problems after they have been detected. Various system components—all the way from the low-level OS kernel to high-level cloud services—write messages that adhere to a well-defined format to the log. These messages include a timestamp, which makes it possible for the logging stack to parse and correlate messages from different components.

Traces are a record of causal relationships (e.g., Service A calls Service B) resulting from user-initiated transactions or jobs. They are related to logs, but provide more specialized information about the context in which different events happen. Tracing is well-understood in a single program, where an execution trace is commonly recorded as an in-memory call stack, but traces are inherently distributed across a graph of network-connected microservices in a cloud setting. This makes the problem challenging, but also critically important because it is often the case that the only way to understand time-dependent phenomena—such as why a particular resource is overloaded—is to understand how multiple independent workflows interact with each other.

Taking a step back from the three types of telemetry data, it is helpful to have a broad understanding of the design space, and to that end, we make four observations.

First, there are two general use cases for telemetry data, which we broadly characterize as “monitoring” and “troubleshooting”. We use these terms in the most general way to represent (a) proactively watching for warning signs of trouble (attacks, bugs, failures, overload conditions) in a steady-state system; versus (b) reactively taking a closer look to determine the root cause and resolve an issue (fix a bug, optimize performance, provision more resources, defend against an attack), once alerted to a potential problem. This distinction is important because the former (monitoring) needs to incur minimal overhead and require minimal human involvement, while the latter (troubleshooting) can be more invasive/expensive and typically involves some level of human expertise. This is not a perfect distinction, with plenty of operator activity happening in a gray area, but being aware of the cost/benefit trade-offs of the available tools is an important starting point.

Second, the more aspects of monitoring and troubleshooting that can be automated, the better. This starts with alerts that automatically detect potential problems; typically includes dashboards that make it easy for humans to see patterns and drill down for relevant details across all three types of data; increasingly leverages Machine Learning and statistical analysis to identify deeper connections that are not obvious to human operators; and ultimately supports closed-loop control where the automated tool not only detects problems but is also able to issue corrective control directives. For the purpose of this chapter, we give examples of the first two (alerts and dashboards), and declare the latter two (analytics and close-loop control) as out-of-scope (but likely running as applications that consume the telemetry data outlined in the sections that follow).

Third, when viewed from the perspective of lifecycle management, monitoring and troubleshooting are just a continuation of testing, except under production workloads rather than test workloads. In fact, the same set of tools can be used on either side of the development-vs-production boundary. For example, as anyone who has profiled a program will recognize and appreciate, tracing is an extremely valuable tool during development—both to track down bugs and to tune performance. Similarly, artificial end-to-end tests can provide value in production systems by triggering early warning alerts. This can be especially helpful when dealing with problematic failure modes.

Finally, because the metrics, logs, and traces collected by the various subsystems are timestamped, it is possible to establish correlations among them, which is helpful when debugging a problem or deciding whether or not an alert is warranted. We give examples of how such telemetry-wide functions are implemented in practice today, as well as discuss the future future of generating and using telemetry data, in the final two sections of this chapter.

6.1 Metrics and Alerts

Starting with metrics, a popular open source monitoring stack uses Prometheus to collect and store platform and service metrics, Grafana to visualize metrics over time, and Alertmanager to notify the operations team of events that require attention. In Aether, Prometheus and Alertmanager are instantiated on each edge cluster, with a single instantiation of Grafana running centrally in the cloud. More information about each tool is available online, so we focus more narrowly on (1) how individual Aether components “opt into” this stack, and (2) how the stack can be customized in service-specific ways.

Further Reading




6.1.1 Exporting Metrics

Individual components implement a Prometheus Exporter to provide the current value of the component’s metrics. A component’s Exporter is queried via HTTP, with the corresponding metrics returned using a simple text format. Prometheus periodically scrapes the Exporter’s HTTP endpoint and stores the metrics in its Time Series Database (TSDB) for querying and analysis. Many client libraries are available for instrumenting code to produce metrics in Prometheus format. If a component’s metrics are available in some other format, tools are often available to convert the metrics into Prometheus format and export them.

A YAML configuration file specifies the set of Exporter endpoints that Prometheus is to pull metrics from, along will the polling frequency for each endpoint. Alternatively, Kubernetes-based microservices can be extended with a Service Monitor Custom Resource Descriptor (CRD) that Prometheus then queries to learn about any Exporter endpoints the microservice has made available.

In addition to component-based Exporters, every edge cluster periodically tests end-to-end connectivity (for various definitions of end-to-end). One test determines whether the 5G control plane is working (i.e., the edge site can reach the SD-Core running in the central cloud) and a second test determines whether the 5G user plane is working (i.e., UEs can reach the Internet). This is a common pattern: individual components can export accumulators and other local variables, but only a “third-party observer” can actively test external behavior, and report the results. These examples correspond to the rightmost “End-to-End Tests” shown in Figure 19 of Chapter 4.

Finally, when a system is running across multiple edge sites, as is the case with Aether, there is an design question of whether monitoring data is stored on the edge sites and lazily pulled to the central location only when needed, or is proactively pushed to the central location as soon as it’s generated. Aether employs both approaches, depending on the volume and urgency of the data being collected. By default, metrics collected by the local instantiation of Prometheus stay on the edge sites, and only query results are returned to the central location (e.g., to be displayed by Grafana as described in the next subsection). This is appropriate for metrics that are both high-volume and seldom viewed. One exception is the end-to-end tests described in the previous paragraph. These results are immediately pushed to the central site (bypassing the local Prometheus), because they are low-volume and may require immediate attention.

6.1.2 Creating Dashboards

The metrics collected by Prometheus are visualized using Grafana dashboards. In Aether, this means the Grafana instance running as part of AMP in the central cloud sends queries to some combination of the central Prometheus and a subset of the Prometheus instances running on edge clusters. For example, Figure 25 shows the summary dashboard for a collection of Aether edge sites.


Figure 25. Central dashboard showing status of Aether edge deployments.

Grafana comes with a set of predefined dashboards for the most common set of metrics—in particular, those associated with physical servers and virtual resources such as containers—but it can also be customized to include dashboards for service-level metrics and other deployment-specific information (e.g., per-enterprise in Aether). For example, Figure 26 shows a custom dashboard for UPF (User Plane Function), the data plane packet forwarder of the SD-Core. The example shows latency and jitter metrics over the last hour at one site, with three additional collapsed panels (PFCP Sessions and Messages) at the bottom.


Figure 26. Custom dashboard showing latency and jitter metrics for UPF, the packet forwarding data plane of the SD-Core component.

Briefly, a dashboard is constructed from a set of panels, where each panel has a well-defined type (e.g., graph, table, gauge, heatmap) bound to a particular Prometheus query. New dashboards are created using the Grafana GUI, and the resulting configuration then saved in a JSON file. This configuration file is then committed to the Config Repo, and later loaded into Grafana whenever it is restarted as part of Lifecycle Management. For example, the following code snippet shows the Prometheus query corresponding to the Uptime panel in Figure 25.

"expr": "avg(avg_over_time(ace_e2e_ok{endpoint=\"metrics80\",name=\"$edge\"}[$__interval]) * 100)",

Note that this expression includes variables for the site ($edge) and the interval over which the uptime is computed ($__interval).

6.1.3 Defining Alerts

Alerts can be triggered in Prometheus when a component metric crosses some threshold. Alertmanager is a tool that then routes the alert to one or more receivers, such as an email address or Slack channel.

An alert for a particular component is defined by an alerting rule, an expression involving a Prometheus query, such that whenever it evaluates to true for the indicated time period, it triggers a corresponding message to be routed to a set of receivers. These rules are recorded in a YAML file that is checked into the Config Repo and loaded into Prometheus. (Alternatively, Helm Charts for individual components can define rules via Prometheus Rule custom resources.) For example, the following code snippet shows the Prometheus Rule for two alerts, where the expr lines corresponds to the respective queries submitted to Prometheus.

- alert: SingleEdgeTestNotReporting
    message: |
      Cluster {{`{{ }}`}} has not reported for at least 5 minutes.
  expr: (time() - aetheredge_last_update{endpoint="metrics80"}) > 300
  for: 1m
    severity: critical
- alert: SingleEdgeConnectTestFailing
    message: |
      Cluster {{`{{ }}`}} reporting UE connect failure for at least 10 minutes.
  expr: aetheredge_connect_test_ok{endpoint="metrics80"} < 1
  for: 10m
    severity: critical

In Aether, the Alertmanager is configured to send alerts with critical or warning severity to a general set of receivers. If it is desirable to route a specific alert to a different receiver (e.g., a Slack channel used by the developers for that particular component), the Alertmanager configuration is changed accordingly.

6.2 Logging

OS programmers have been writing diagnostic messages to a syslog since the earliest days of Unix. Originally collected in a local file, the syslog abstraction has been adapted to cloud environments by adding a suite of scalable services. Today, one typical open source logging stack uses Fluentd to collect (aggregate, buffer, and route) log messages written by a set of components, with Fluentbit serving as a client-side agent running in each component helping developers normalize their log messages. ElasticSearch is then used to store, search, and analyze those messages, with Kibana used to display and visualize the results. The general flow of data is shown in Figure 27, using the main Aether subsystems as illustrative sources of log messages.


Figure 27. Flow of log messages through the Logging subsystem.

Further Reading




6.2.1 Common Schema

The key challenge in logging is to adopt a uniform message format across all components, a requirement that is complicated by the fact that the various components integrated in a complex system are often developed independently of each other. Fluentbit plays a role in normalizing these messages by supporting a set of filters. These filters parse “raw” log messages written by the component (an ASCII string), and output “canonical” log messages as structured JSON. There are other options, but JSON is reasonably readable as text, which still matters for debugging by humans. It is also well-supported by tooling.

For example, developers for the SD-Fabric component might write a log message that looks like this:

2020-08-18 05:35:54.842Z INFO [DistributedP4RuntimeTableMirror] Synchronized TABLE_ENTRY mirror for device:leaf1: 0 removed, 2 updated, 4 added

where a Fluentbit filter transforms into a structure that looks like this:

  "time": "2020-08-18 05:35:54.842Z",
  "logLevel": "INFO",  "component": "DistributedP4RuntimeTableMirror",
  "log": "Synchronized TABLE_ENTRY mirror for device:leaf1: 0 removed, 2 updated, 4 added"

This example is simplified, but it does serve to illustrate the basic idea. It also highlights the challenge the DevOps team faces in building the management platform, which is to decide on a meaningful set of name/value pairs for the system as a whole. In other words, they must define a common schema for these structured log messages. The Elastic Common Schema is a good place to start that definition, but among other things, it will be necessary to establish the accepted set of log levels, and conventions for using each level. In Aether, for example, the log levels are: FATAL, ERROR, WARNING, INFO, and DEBUG.

Further Reading

Elastic Common Schema.

6.2.2 Best Practices

Establishing a shared logging platform is, of course, of little value unless all the individual components are properly instrumented to write log messages. Programming languages typically come with library support for writing log messages (e.g., Java’s log4j), but that’s just a start. Logging is most effective if the components adhere to the following set of best practices.

  • Log shipping is handled by the platform. Components should assume that stdout/stderr is ingested into the logging system by Fluentbit (or similar tooling), and avoid making the job more complicated by trying to route their own logs. The exception is for external services and hardware devices that are outside the management platform’s control. How these systems send their logs to a log aggregator must be established as a part of the deployment process.

  • File logging should be disabled. Writing log files directly to a container’s layered file system is proven to be I/O inefficient and can become a performance bottleneck. It is also generally unnecessary if the logs are also being sent to stdout/stderr. Generally, logging to a file is discouraged when a component runs in a container environment. Instead, components should stream all logs to the collecting system.

  • Asynchronous logging is encouraged. Synchronous logging can become a performance bottleneck in a scaled environment. Components should write logs asynchronously.

  • Timestamps should be created by the program’s logger. Components should use the selected logging library to create timestamps, with as precise a timestamp as the logging framework allows. Using the shipper or logging handlers may be slower, or create timestamps on receipt, which may be delayed. This makes trying to align events between multiple services after log aggregation problematic.

  • Must be able to change log levels without interrupting service. Components should provide a mechanism to set the log level at startup, and an API that allows the log level to be changed at runtime. Scoping the log level based on specific subsystems is a useful feature, but not required. When a component is implemented by a suite of microservices, the logging configuration need only be applied to one instance for it to apply to all instances.

6.3 Distributed Tracing

Execution traces are the third source of telemetry data. Tracing is challenging in a cloud setting because it involves following the flow of control for each user-initiated request across multiple microservices. The good news is that instrumenting a set of microservices involves activating tracing support in the underlying language runtime system—typically in the RPC stubs—rather than asking app developers to explicitly instrument their programs.

The general pattern is similar to what we’ve already seen with metrics and logs: the running code is instrumented to produce data that is then collected, aggregated, stored, and made available for display and analysis. The main difference is the type of data we’re interested in collecting, which, for tracing, is typically the sequence of API boundary crossings from one module to another. This data gives us the information we need to reconstruct the call chain. In principle, we could leverage the logging system to support tracing—and just be diligent in logging the necessary interface-crossing information—but it is a specialized enough use case to warrant its own vocabulary, abstractions, and mechanisms.

At a high level, a trace is a description of a transaction as it moves through the system. It consists of a sequence of spans (each of which represents work done within a service) interleaved with a set of span contexts (each of which represents the state carried across the network from one service to another). An illustrative example of a trace is shown in Figure 28, but abstractly, a trace is a directed graph with nodes that correspond to spans and edges that correspond to span contexts. The nodes and edges are then timestamped and annotated with relevant facts (key/value tags) about the end-to-end execution path, including when and for how long it ran. Each span also includes timestamped log messages generated while the span was executing, simplifying the process of correlating log messages with traces.


Figure 28. Example trace spanning two network services.

Again, as with metrics and log messages, the details are important and those details are specified by an agreed-upon data model. The OpenTelemetry project is now defining one such model, building on the earlier OpenTracing project (which was in turn influenced by the Dapper distributed tracing mechanism developed by Google). Beyond the challenge of defining a model that captures the most relevant semantic information, there is the pragmatic issue of (1) minimizing the overhead of tracing so as not to negatively impact application performance, yet (2) extracting enough information from traces so as to make collecting it worthwhile. Sampling is a widely adopted technique introduced into the data collection pipeline to manage this trade-off. One consequence of these challenges is that distributed tracing is the subject of ongoing research, and we can expect the model definitions and sampling techniques to evolve and mature in the foreseeable future.

With respect to mechanisms, Jaeger is a widely used open source tracing tool originally developed by Uber. (Jaeger is not currently included in Aether, but was utilized in a predecessor ONF edge cloud.) Jaeger includes instrumentation of the runtime system for the language(s) used to implement an application, a collector, storage, and a query language that can be used to diagnose performance problems and do root cause analysis.

6.4 Integrated Dashboards

The metrics, logs and traces being generated by instrumented application software make it possible to collect a wealth of data about the health of a system. But this instrumentation is only useful if the right data is displayed to the right people (those with the ability to take action) at the right time (when action needs to be taken). Creating useful panels and organizing them into intuitive dashboards is part of the solution, but integrating information across the subsystems of the management platform is also a requirement.

Unifying all this data is the ultimate objective of ongoing efforts like the OpenTelemetry project mentioned in the previous section, but there are also opportunities to use the tools described in this chapter to better integrate data. This section highlights two general strategies.

First, both Kibana and Grafana can be configured to display telemetry data from multiple sources. For example, it is straightforward to integrate both logs and traces in Kibana. This is typically done by first feeding the tracing data into ElasticSearch, which Kibana then queries. Similarly, it is useful to have a convenient way to see the log messages associated with a particular component in the context of metrics that have been collected. This is easy to accomplish because Grafana can be configured to display data from ElasticSearch just as easily as from Prometheus. Both are data sources that can be queried. This makes it to possible to create a Grafana dashboard that includes a selected set of log messages, similar to the one from Aether shown in Figure 29. In this example, we see INFO-level messages associated with the UPF sub-component of SD-Core, which augments the UPF performance data shown in Figure 26.


Figure 29. Log messages associated with the UPF element of SD-Core, displayed in a Grafana dashboard.

Second, the runtime control interface described in Chapter 5 provides a means to change various parameters of a running system, but having access to the data needed to know what changes (if any) need to be made is a prerequisite for making informed decisions. To this end, it is ideal to have access to both the “knobs” and the “dials” on an integrated dashboard. This can be accomplished by incorporating Grafana frames in the Runtime Control GUI, which, in its simplest form, displays a set of web forms corresponding to the fields in the underlying data models. (More sophisticated control panels are certainly possible.)


Figure 30. Example control dashboard showing the set of Device Groups defined for a fictional set of Aether sites.

For example, Figure 30 shows the current set of device groups for a fictional set of Aether sites, where clicking on the “Edit” button pops up a web form that lets the enterprise admin modify the corresponding fields of the Device-Group model (not shown), and clicking on the “Monitor” button pops up a Grafana-generated frame similar to the one shown in Figure 31. In principle, this frame is tailored to show only the most relevant information associated with the selected object.


Figure 31. Example monitoring frame associated with a selected Device Group.

6.5 Observability

Knowing what telemetry data to collect, so you have exactly the right information when you need it, but doing so without negatively impacting system performance, is a difficult problem. Observability is a relatively new term being used to describe this general problem space, and while the term can be dismissed as the latest marketing buzzword (which it is), it can also be interpreted as another of the set of “-ities” that all good systems aspire to, alongside scalability, reliability, availability, security, usability, and so on. Observability is the quality of a system that makes visible the facts about its internal operation needed to make informed management and control decisions. It has become a fertile space for innovation, and so we conclude this chapter with two examples that may become commonplace in the near future.

The first is Inband Network Telemetry (INT), which takes advantage of programmable switching hardware to allow operators to ask new questions about how packets are being processed “in-band”, as they flow through the network. This is in contrast to either depending on the predefined set of counters hardwired into fixed-function network devices, or being able to inspect just a sampled subset of packets. Because Aether uses programmable switches as the foundation for its SDN-based switching fabric, it is able to use INT as a fourth type of telemetry data, and in doing so provide qualitatively deeper insights into traffic patterns and the root causes of network failures.

For example, INT has been used to measure and record queuing delay individual packets experience while traversing a sequence of switches along an end-to-end path, making it possible to detect microbursts (queuing delays measured over millisecond or even sub-millisecond time scales). It is even possible to correlate this information across packet flows that followed different routes, so as to determine which flows shared buffer capacity at each switch. As another example, INT has been used to record the decision making process that directed how packets are delivered, that is, which forwarding rules were applied at each switch along the end-to-end path. This opens the door to using INT to verify that the data plane is faithfully executing the forwarding behavior the network operator intends. For more information about INT, we refer the reader to our companion SDN book.

Further Reading

L. Peterson, et al. Software-Defined Networking: A Systems Approach. November 2021.

The second is the emergence of Service Meshes mentioned in Chapter 1. A Service Mesh framework such as Istio provides a means to enforce fine-grained security policies and collect telemetry data in cloud native applications by injecting “observation/enforcement points” between microservices. These injection points, called sidecars, are typically implemented by a container that “runs along side” the containers that implement each microservice, with all RPC calls from Service A to Service B passing through their associated sidecars. As shown in Figure 32, these sidecars then implement whatever policies the operator wants to impose on the application, sending telemetry data to a global collector and receiving security directives from a global policy engine.


Figure 32. Overview of a Service Mesh framework, with sidecars intercepting messages flowing between Services A and B. Each sidecar enforces security policy received from the central controller and sends telemetry data to the central controller.

From the perspective of observability, sidecars can be programmed to record whatever information operators might want to collect, and in principle, they can even be dynamically updated as conditions warrant. This provides a general way for operators to define how the system is observed without having to rely on instrumentation developers might include in their services. The downside is that sidecars impose a nontrivial amount of overhead on inter-service communication. For that reason, alternative approaches to sidecars are gaining traction, notably Cilium, which uses eBPF (extended Berkeley Packet Filters) to implement observability, security and networking data plane features inside the kernel rather than in a sidecar.

For more information about the Istio Service Mesh, we recommend Calcote and Butcher’s book. The Cilium project has extensive documentation and tutorials at its web site.

Further Reading

L. Calcote and Z. Butcher Istio: Up and Running. October 2019.

Cilium: eBPF-based Networking, Observability, Security.